Jeff Pearlman

  • Twitter Icon
  • Twitter Icon
  • Twitter Icon

On Jerry Tarkanian and the Laker coach who wasn’t

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.01.38 AM

I just learned a few minutes ago about the passing of Jerry Tarkanian, the legendary basketball coach best known for his successful, controversial tenure at UNLV. Back in 1979, however, Tarkanian nearly accepted the vacant head coaching job of the Los Angeles Lakers. Tragedy, however, prevented that from happening. Below is an excerpt from my book, Showtime, which came out in paperback a few months back. RIP, Tark …

In the weeks following the Lakers agreement with Magic Johnson, Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Buss—the outgoing and incoming owners of the franchise—communicated regularly. They chatted via the phone several times per day, lunched frequently, discussed personnel and facilities and the right way to move a franchise forward.

That was, for all his shortcomings, one of the beauties of Jack Kent Cooke. Yes, he wanted to sell the Los Angeles Lakers. But he wanted to do so the right way; the righteous way. In his mind, this meant helping Buss as much as possible.

This also meant taking part in the search for the team’s next coach.

Over the previous three years, the man working the sidelines for the Lakers had been Jerry West, a Hall of Fame guard so revered that the NBA’s logo, designed in 1968, was his silhouette. West was, by all accounts, one of the smartest men to ever step on the court. He was perceptive, instinctive and forward thinking.

He also loathed coaching.

“Oh, it was awful,” said West. “Coaching wasn’t something I was really capable of doing. As a coach I was a screamer and a yeller, which I hated. When Jerry Buss came in, I knew it was my time to stop coaching once and for all. It would have been unfair to myself to keep doing a job I hated, and it would have been unfair for Jerry to have a coach who wasn’t that good at his job. A change was needed.”

Two years earlier, Cooke had approached Jerry Tarkanian, the coach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, with an offer to take over for West. At the time, he had just led the Runnin’ Rebels to the Final Four, and was the king of a school that had aspired to athletic glory. After strong consideration, Tarkanian rejected Cooke’s overtures. The offer ($70,000 per year, with a $2,500 raise every year) barely exceeded what he had made in Nevada. “It was real close,” said Tarkanian.

By 1979, the timing had changed.

•••

Tarkanian would have been paired with a rookie guard named Magic.

Tarkanian would have been paired with a rookie guard named Magic.

The car was parked on the second level of a garage alongside the Sheraton Universal Hotel in North Hollywood. Because this was La-La Land, where celebrities and big spenders came to peacock, there was little unusual about this particular make of car in this particular location. Oh, the maroon-and-white 1977 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II was a dandy, what with its innovative high-pressure hydraulic system and its Turbo Hydramatic 400 transmission. But considering the roll call of Mercedes and BMWs and Jaguars situated nearby, really, what was the big deal? The Rolls was, in these surroundings, merely another fancy car belonging, no doubt, to merely another high roller.

With one difference

There was something inside the trunk.

Hidden.

Locked.

Stashed away.

The Sheraton parking lot attendant took notice early on the morning of June 17, 1979. He was doing his rounds, the same mindless stroll he’d surely taken hundreds of times before, when the two-tone paint job—a rich maroon on the top, blinding white on the bottom—caught his eye. Hadn’t authorities been looking for a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II? A maroon-and-white one with a gold interior?

Before long, several members of the Los Angeles Police force arrived. Leroy Orozco, a veteran LAPD detective, matched the license plate with the missing vehicle. He proceeded to check the trunk for fingerprints, pop the lock and, with seemingly little effort, open the trunk.

The first thing those in attendance noticed was the smell.

It shot up into the air, like a ghost set free from its crypt. There’s nothing quite like the stench, really—rotting flesh, contained within a small space.

The second thing was the decaying corpse. It was a white man, only the remaining skin, decomposed beyond recognition, had turned a freakish shade of blackish purple. The body, wrapped in a yellow blanket, was trussed neck-to-waste-to-feet with its hands—crisp and hardened from rigamortis—tied behind his back. A bullet hole shattered the rear of the skull, and another one penetrated the right temple. When an officer reached into the body’s pants pockets, neither a wallet nor a driver’s license were found. A security television monitor directly above the space where the Rolls was parked had been tampered with.

Still, no confirmation was needed.

This was Victor Weiss.

•••

Weird image of Victor Weiss from Associated Press.

Weird image of Victor Weiss from Associated Press.

A mere three days earlier, on the evening of June 14, Weiss seemed to be the happiest man on the planet. A 51-year-old sports promoter who served as Tarkanian’s representative, he had bounded out the front entrance of the Beverly Comstock Hotel, euphoric in the knowledge that his client was about to named the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Those were the words Cooke and Buss had just used during their meeting—“we’re excited to have Jerry as the new coach of the Lakers.”

When, two months earlier, Los Angeles again contacted Tarkanian about jumping to the NBA, the coach seemed less than enthused. He now viewed himself as strictly a college guy, wrapped up in the oomph and rah-rah of the amateur level. Was “Tark,” as most people called him, a pillar of moral fortitude? Hardly. At the time, he was in the midst of fighting the NCAA over alleged recruiting violations. Was he a Dean Smith-esque master of Xs and Os? No. But few white men were better at understanding and empathizing with the young African-American basketball player. Tarkanian possessed a gift, and it was walking into the projects of, oh, Detroit or Gary, Indiana or Newark, N.J. and leaving two hours later with the commitment letter signature of a 6-foot-5 kid who could jump from here to Pluto.

So, really, Tarkanian had no interest in leaving a position he cherished for one where he would be forced to serve as a glorified babysitter for a bunch of half-hearted, coked-out millionaires in a league that’d been damned by mediocre ratings, poor attendance and drug addiction. Yes, the Lakers boasted the NBA’s greatest player in Abdul-Jabbar, as well as the first pick in the upcoming draft (one that, Tarkanian rightly suspected, would be used on Johnson). But, well … “I loved Las Vegas, my family loved Las Vegas,” Tarkanian said. “I was actually in New York City, recruiting [Thomas Jefferson High School star] Sidney Green, when the Lakers reached out and talked to Lois [Tarkanian’s wife]. When she told me I immediately said, ‘I can’t take the job, right? I just can’t.’”
Still, to be polite, Tarkanian returned Cooke’s call, explaining that, even if he were interested in moving to California, it’d have to be for, ohhhhh … a helluva lot more than the $70,000 offered last time.

“Like what? Cooke said.

“Well,” said Tarkanian. “It’d have to be, oh, double the $350,000 I make right now.

“That’s fine,” Cooke said without flinching.

“What?” said Tarkanian.

“That’s fine,” Cooke repeated. “We can do that.”

So here was Vic Weiss, moments after wrapping up with Cooke and Buss, briefcase in hand, approaching the valet parking station at the Comstock, happy as could be. Not only were the Lakers willing to make Tarkanian the NBA’s all-time highest-paid coach, they also ceded to all of his demands: A pair of season tickets for every home game, three luxury automobiles—one for Jerry, one for Lois, one for Pamela, their oldest daughter. “Everything was set,” Tarkanian said. “I was the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.”

Around the same time Weiss was wrapping things up, Jerry and Lois drove north from San Diego, where they had been vacationing, to the Balboa Bay Club & Resort in Newport Beach. In the ensuing days, the plan went, Tarkanian would sit down with Cooke and Buss, sign the five-year contract and be introduced to the Los Angeles media as the Lakers’ 10th head coach.

“I’ll meet you and Lois tomorrow morning at the resort,” Weiss told Tarkanian. “This is a really exciting time for you.”

It was the last time the two men ever spoke.

•••

Jerry Buss wanted to hire Tarkanian.

Jerry Buss wanted to hire Tarkanian.

The phone inside the Balboa Bay Club & Resort rang, and Jerry Tarkanian answered. It was 1 o’clock in the morning of June 15. On the other end of the line was Rose Weiss, Vic’s wife of nearly 20 years. Her voice sounded panicked. Scared. She was calling from her home in nearby Encino. “Have you seen my husband?” she asked. “We were supposed to have dinner last night. He never came.”

He hadn’t.

“Rose was nervous, but I wasn’t at first,” Jerry said. “We thought maybe he got sidetracked doing something else. Or that something urgent came up. It didn’t seem like that big a deal.”

One day turned into two days. Two days turned into three. A sense of confusion morphed into a sense of dread. Finally, when police were able to match the fingerprints from the decayed body with those of Vic Weiss, the phone inside the Tarkanians’ hotel room rang again. “It was devastating news,” Lois said. “This was someone Jerry was friends with for a long time; someone he loved and admired. I can’t tell you how badly that hurt us.”

Most of those who knew Vic Weiss acknowledged a slipperiness to the man. Weiss’ business holdings were hardly of the up-and-up genre. He apparently owned three car dealerships (Rolls-Royce, Ford and Fiat) and managed a handful of so-so boxers, including Armando Muniz, a four-time challenger for the welterweight title. Weiss always carried around a thick wad of cash (he had $38,000 in his pocket for the meeting with Buss and Cooke), and rarely left home minus his ostentatious solid gold wristwatch and matching diamond ring (purchased from Anthony Starr, a Canadian jewel thief who routinely sold Weiss stolen goods). It was far from unusual to see Weiss standing ringside, talking shop with known mobsters.

What detectives later learned was that Weiss, the ultimate showman, had little to show. Though he told people he possessed the three car dealerships, he actually was merely a paid consultant. His Encino home was owned by an associate, and his car—the maroon-and-white Rolls-Royce—was leased. Weiss had run up more than $60,000 in gambling debts and—at the time of his death—was flying back and forth from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to deliver bundles of laundered cash. According to one of his colleagues, Weiss skimmed money off the top of the transactions. He had been warned repeatedly to stop and, police suspected, was ultimately killed when he didn’t.

•••

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.33.28 PM

Photo by Mike Organ

Despite it all—the murder and the suspicions and the lingering questions—Jerry Tarkanian was still the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. He would be designing plays for Kareem down low; would be figuring out how to blend the talents of Norm Nixon, the incumbent All-Star point guard, with Johnson, the rookie point guard. He would have to incorporate Jamaal Wilkes, the smooth small forward, into the offensive mix, and find an answer to the longstanding void at power forward. “He was so excited to coach Magic,” Lois said. “He had all these ideas how to use him.”

A week after Weiss was murdered, Jerry and Lois flew to Las Vegas, where they dined with Buss. “I know this whole tragedy has been very hard on you,” Buss said. “Take as much time as you need. The offer is on the table, and it’s not going anywhere. You’re our coach.”

Inside, though, Tarkanian became increasingly conflicted. Vic Weiss’ murder had changed things even though, more than three decades later, Tarkanian can’t fully explain it. With the death came the news (hidden until this point) of the coaching transaction. The people of Las Vegas reached out Please don’t leave. We need you. You need us. You are Las Vegas. The Tarkanians had four children, none of whom wanted to depart. Maybe, just maybe, money wasn’t everything. Maybe $700,000 wasn’t worth giving up the job he loved most; the job he was born to hold.

“I don’t think Jerry ever got past Vic’s death,” said Lois. “He just didn’t get past it.”

When Tarkanian ultimately called Buss to tell him he had decided to remain in Las Vegas, the new Lakers owner held no grudge. “I understand,” he said. “Some things just aren’t meant to be.”

  • Jarrett KnightRanger

    I have been looking for images of Victor Weiss forever. How did you find this?

Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life